The Case For New Villages

February 27th, 2024

If we want to make a real difference to housing supply we will need to do something different and not just more of the same. One idea is to simply create more of what already works. We are a region of small villages like Federal, Mullum, and Clunes, which are popular and sought-after places to live. Why not rezone and masterplan a couple of new ones – from scratch?

Unfortunately, existing planning and zoning rules make innovative ideas hard to implement. The NSW planning system is a labyrinth of archaic, complex rules and regulations that often don’t make sense. An overhaul is needed but that is another conversation. One reason why the YIMBY (Yes In My Back Yard) movement is effective is that it takes its members through an educational process on how to work within the planning system and affect change where the decisions are made – in local councils.


Is the System Broken?

Any new development, especially large ones, will create opposition and resistance. NIMBYs (Not In My Back Yard), are opposed to a lot of new development. This is understandable when a lot of new development is bad, ugly, and unfit for purpose. A DA (Development Application) often takes so long to work its way through the system most developers build as basic as they can, go for maximum yield, sell quickly, and get out. Good design that is sustainable and aesthetic is not encouraged and is often financially risky.

NIMBYs also argue the need to maintain heritage values. This is also understandable as we all know and appreciate places and buildings that have been preserved for posterity. Both NIMBY and YIMBY have good points, but can we satisfy them both at the same time? Can new master-planned, rural villages provide affordable, sustainable homes at reasonable density while preserving heritage and the environment? Possibly – but we need to get over a few hurdles first.

Planning regulations

Ideally, the idea of new villages should have been included in the Byron Residential Strategy, now in the process of being submitted to the NSW State Planning Dept. This is the road map for rolling out new housing options from 2016 to 2036. Yes, that means it is 8 years late but that is another story. There are a few reasons why it could not be included, and hopefully in layman’s language, here they are:


1. It will delay the Process.

The Byron Shire Council Residential Strategy has been through a few iterations and failed submission attempts already. The argument was that anything out of the box like new villages would not be compliant and incur the danger of throwing the whole thing out and being sent back to the mayoral desk with a big FAIL stamp in red ink.


2. Non Contiguous

Currently, there is no zoning pathway for a new village to be approved. Any new residential development needs to be “contiguous” with an existing residential zoning. That means new residential development can only proceed from an existing urban zoning.


3. Agricultural Land

Of course, we need to preserve our farmland to grow food, but currently, all agricultural land comes with a blanket restriction.  Some of it is degraded grazing paddocks and steep rocky and infertile land. Also, land in this shire comes with such a hefty price tag it will never be financially viable for traditional farming.


4. East of Highway

For some unknown reason, it was once gazetted that there be no new development east of the Pacific Highway. Maybe it was an attempt to slow the demand for urban sprawl close to the coast. This makes sense but some sites for new villages are on land east of the Pacific Highway – these compact villages should not be classed as urban sprawl.


These precepts seem reasonable, but once you drill down, they are completely bogus. They only allow tired old development ideas and nothing new or innovative, No matter how desirable and productive a new development is, it must tick a series of boxes and fit through a predefined approval pathway. Queensland and Victoria have a much more flexible approval process with much better outcomes.


Old Is New Again

But is this so new anyway? Let’s travel to another region of villages – the Amalfi Coast south of Naples in Italy. The cobblestone streets are not created for cars or trucks but for people. Parking, market gardens and larger villas are on the outskirts. Everyone walks to the central village square, where the restaurants, cafes, and shops on street level, with apartments in the above two stories. It is a human-centered design that has evolved over many centuries. No need to reinvent the wheel.

Maybe we can reinvent the wheel a bit. Let’s overlay this traditional village layout with contemporary amenities. Rooftop solar feeding battery storage to a microgrid, grey water management to feed the community gardens, fibreoptic to each home, medium density apartments with shared open space, laundry facility and bike lanes and bicycle storage.

Old Ways Are New Again

A locally produced book called NOW – New Old Ways outlines a lot of these concepts that would work in the Northern Rivers. You can go to this website and either download a digital copy or request a hard copy.

Another obvious and traditional concept is to place these new villages along the Rail Trail. Experts are saying our addiction to cars is killing us and walking and bike riding is the optimum form of transport. Density is nothing to be afraid of if liveability and amenity are increased.


EXISTING examples

The following links are of eco-village developments currently underway. It is not exactly the concept outlined above but it includes some good ideas.

Wytchclyffe small town south of Margaret River in WA is evolving this ecovillage that is setting a high standard.

Narara is on the central coast of NSW. It came with some infrastructure as was a disused horticultural institute.

Nightingale is an interesting NFP in Melbourne who is doing good things in inner city unit housing.

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